Sunday, May 31, 2009

Our poverty + their wealth = India


Sometimes it takes a foreign eye to see India in perspective. Known statistics, for example, have been humanised by The Economist to paint a telling picture of the Indian reality in its post-election glow. The juxtaposition of facts goes thus:

“About 27 million Indians will be born this year. Unless things improve, almost 2 million of them will die before the next general election. Of the children who survive, more than 40 percent will be physically stunted by malnutrition. Most will enroll in a school, but they cannot count on their teachers showing up. After five years of classes, less than 60 percent will be able to read a short story and more than 60 percent will be stumped by simple arithmetic”.

This is by no means a damn-India editorial. Far from it. The cover story is headlined “Good news from India”. True, The Economist often adopts a know-all attitude and gives lectures to all and sundry. This is no reason why we should shy away from facts that are known to us, too, as facts.

The underlying fact about India is that six decades after independence, it remains an extremely poor country. There is widespread poverty in China, but not of the pitiable levels of human degradation we see in the slums of India. Countries like Malaysia needed only two decades to virtually abolish poverty.

Why have the many governments of India allowed the poverty of India to continue as a humiliating spectacle? The main reason must be that our politicians were busy with other things. When they did talk of poverty, it was only for purposes of gimmickry. Indira Gandhi sold the slogan “Garibi hatao”, won elections – and that was that. In his otherwise insubstantial book After Nehru, Who?, American author Welles Hangen wrote in 1963 what is true to this day. “The tragedy of India”, he said, “is not poverty, but the mentality that accepts, even condones, poverty”.

That mentality persists. When a film depicting the horrors of Indian poverty wins Oscars in Hollywood, we protest against foreigners looking only at the negative side of India. We don’t do anything about eliminating the negative side. In fact, we, too, try to profit from it by starting “slum tourism” in Dharavi.

Today we have a new union cabinet of mostly capable men and women, headed by one of the world’s most respected economists. Predictably, we hear of 8 percent and 10 percent growth. Spectacular growth has taken place since Nehru’s Socialist days. A nouveau riche class has arisen. But more than half of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. The very poor remain very miserably poor.

There are vital problems that do not depend on growth rates for a solution. The highly influential ministers from Tamil Nadu, for example, will need only a fraction of their influence to put an end to the shameful two-glass system in the teashops of the deep south. The powerful ministers from Punjab and Haryana can take effective steps to stop the practice of female infanticide. The high-calibre ministers from Kerala can help save their state’s rivers from being killed by sand mafias.

Of course none of them will do any of this. Our politicians are primarily self-centred. We will see poverty and misery continuing while the wealth of the ruling class increases. Organisations like the National Election Watch have computed that the average assets of MPs increased from 2004 to 2009 by 103 percent for Congress, by 155 percent for the BJP, by 463 percent for the DMK and by a breath-taking 831 percent for the JDS.
Poverty? What poverty?